Professor Helen McShane
Professor Helen McShane outside Oxford University's Old Road Campus Research Building

A life in science: celebrating International Women’s Day

Charvy Narain

8th March is International Women’s Day, celebrating the social, economic, cultural and political achievement of women. To mark the day, Charvy Narain spoke to a woman with a significant record of scientific achievement: Professor Helen McShane. Professor McShane is a Wellcome Trust Senior Clinical Research Fellow at the Jenner Institute, and she was recently appointed the interim Deputy Head of the Nuffield Department of Medicine, the single largest department at the University of Oxford. Charvy asked what it was like to build a career in science as a woman.

Oxford Science Blog: How did you get interested in science: were you encouraged to consider it as a career?

Helen McShane: No, I wasn’t at all encouraged to do science or medicine – in fact, I had a maths teacher at school who told me to be a housewife and not to go to medical school! I did my A levels back in 1985, so it wasn't exactly in the dark ages either!

Professor Helen McShane and her research groupBut that was probably the spur that I needed to go on and consider medicine, even though I was at a comprehensive school in Southeast London.

I trained in medicine at Guy's and St Thomas' medical school in London and then moved to Brighton for my junior hospital jobs. This was before Brighton had a medical school, but Brighton had a very, very good district general hospital that offered fantastic medical training.

What Brighton also had was a large gay community, and I was at the hospital in the early 1990s – at the beginning of the HIV epidemic in the UK, before we had effective anti-retroviral drugs. So I had a ward full of young patients who were all wasting away, many of them blind, and all of them dying.

It was a really extraordinary time; it was quite awful because all my patients were dying and all I could offer was palliative care, but at the same time, the scientific aspects were fascinating, because many of these patients had otherwise quite rare infections. That’s what really hooked me on to studying infectious diseases.

OSB: How did you transition to working as a scientist from being a clinician?

HM: I came up to Oxford as the registrar in infectious diseases and then went down to London, where I learning to use a bronchoscope (a device that is passed into the windpipe in order to view the lungs) in a HIV project, looking after patients with tuberculosis (TB) - people with HIV are more likely to get TB too. I found TB a really interesting disease to study, and while the whole world seemed to be working on HIV, no one seemed to be working on TB.

So I came up and talked to Adrian Hill (now the director of the Jenner Institute) and successfully applied to get DPhil funding to work on TB. At that time, Adrian was doing quite exciting work on malaria vaccines (as he continues to do still), and he very generously agreed that I could take what he was doing with malaria vaccines and see if it could be applied to TB.

So I made and tested some vaccines, and I still continue to do that, 20 years on!

OSB: How was it doing science as a woman in Oxford 20 years back?

HM: I think it really did not matter: Adrian ran a group and now runs an Institute which I think is a true meritocracy, and I found that people were interested in ability and gender really did not get in the way. So I have been quite lucky in that way to work under quite inspirational leadership.

The one thing that I wish I could change is that I wish I had more confidence earlier. I still see this in a lot in the women I work with now: women often underestimate what they can do, and are less likely to put themselves forward. It took me a long time to get to the point where I thought to myself, 'Actually, I can do this as well as anyone else', and I think it often takes women a longer time to get to this point, compared to men.

Mentoring is critically to help this process along, and having a range of mentors for different aspects of your career often helps as well. Being able to look above you and seeing role models is also very helpful, as is being able to go and talk to people freely: I often see junior women medics and scientists for whom a tiny bit of support of this kind is absolutely critical.

OSB: What has it been like juggling your scientific career with family commitments?

HM: That's actually not the only things I juggle: while most of my time is spent running my research group, as a clinician I still regularly see HIV patients every week. I continue to love this clinical work: it keeps my feet on the ground, but it does mean that I have to manage clinical work, research as well as family life.

I have also had what turns out to be one child per fellowship; I had my first child when I was writing up my doctoral thesis, my second child when I was on a clinician-scientist fellowship, and my third when I had my senior fellowship. The fellowships have continued, but I stopped at three children!

I think that research is actually much more flexible than a clinical career, and I'm also very lucky that my husband also gets to divide his time equally between clinical and research work.

Between us, we have managed to 'box and cox' looking after the children and our respective careers. I couldn't have done what I have without my husband's support, but I think that the flexibility that a research career affords has allowed me leeway that would have been much harder to get in a clinical career – I rarely miss school plays, for example, because I can organise my own diary. Though sometimes one then has to catch up in the evening!

This flexibility that a research career allows often goes unappreciated, but the downside is that that it can be completely boundary-less: you feel like you never finish.

But I think I am extremely lucky: I have three children I adore and a job that I love.

OSB: What advice would you give to someone, male or female, thinking of a scientific career?

HM: I do think it is all possible: I do 'have it all', as much as anyone does. But be prepared to work hard, and be prepared for things to give way occasionally: not everything can be perfect all the time if you really want to have everything.

It might take you a little bit longer, just because you are trying to fit more in, and it is important to remember that there isn’t a great rush: when I was training as a junior doctor, I was often told 'Well, you’ve got to be a consultant by the time you are 35'. But life is long, and it is much more important to create a career and niche for yourself that is fulfilling, where you still want to get out of bed excited about your work every morning. I think it is far more important to get to the right place rather than get there quickly.

I also think that this advice applied to men pretty much equally as well: my children have really benefitted from having a father who is as hands-on as me, and the ability for flexible working, and prioritizing home life regardless of gender, had been of great benefit for both of us.